Lectionary Sermon for 25 March 2012 Lent 5 Year B (On John 12: 20 -33)

Some Greeks came with a request – “Sir we would like to see Jesus”
Philip sounds suspiciously like most of us in the Church today. Well it’s not for me to introduce a stranger to Jesus….you can almost hear him thinking… So I’ll find someone, someone who can act as a broker on my behalf. In this case Andrew. After all it was Andrew who has invited others to meet Jesus….Today he might have sought out the minister or Parish Steward.
As it happens, although this may seem a trivial incident it probably struck the disciples as being strange or even a bit bizarre that the Greeks should even be there. The fact that the Greeks had no immediate access to Jesus suggested Gentiles had not been expected as part of Jesus’ followers up to that point. It is true that Jesus’ reputation would have had to be considerable before those who saw themselves as having a different religion to Jesus would seek out this man who was after all clearly a Jew. Thus for Greeks, who were Gentiles, to seek out Jesus the Jew would probably have been unexpected. Even stranger, they had even arrived during a Jewish festival. J H Bernard notes that since the account of Jesus clearing the Temple describes the event as occurring in the Gentiles courtyard, he speculates that perhaps these particular Greeks may have even witnessed this event and been sufficiently intrigued to seek out the man responsible for this daring act.
Regardless of how they might have decided to seek out Jesus, in John’s account this is almost presented as a turning point that the Greeks are now on the scene. It is almost as if this is Jesus using this event to show his mission to the Jews has developed into one with much wider appeal – a mission to the world. It is also as if we are being reminded that Jesus can now be lifted up now that the dawn of the time has arrived when in Jesus’ words , “I can draw everyone to myself” .We might note also in passing that Jesus certainly doesn’t make allowances for the Greeks as foreigners or waste time on conversational niceties.
You would think that Jesus would have been delighted that at last even those in the wider world – in this case the Greek gentiles were turning to Jesus. After all, our modern age portrays success in a Church sense of attracting the masses – and the more diverse the better. So do we see Jesus making it easy for these newcomers? As that TV character used to say, “I should cocoa!”
Yet why didn’t he seem to welcome this new dimension to his ministry? For example a few years ago Billy Graham expressed satisfaction that whereas at one time he had preached to a crowd, yet now with the aid of Television he was able literally to reach millions. (quoted by Neil Postman in Amusing ourselves to Death ,Heinemann 1986: P118). This is after all the age of mega Churches and multi millionaire televangelists. Yet Jesus would have none of that numbers driven approach. Jesus presented his teaching as being more in line with Jacob being forced to wrestle one on one with an un-named angel. In Genesis 32 at Peniel, at the ford of the river Jabbok, you may remember the unknown angel – the mysterious divine presence, wrestles all night with Jacob, who though he prevails, is crippled in the encounter.
Jesus too leaves his would be disciples with a difficult, costly and potentially damaging choice. What he says in effect, whether it be to the fishermen disciples at their nets, the rich young ruler, those he challenged to pick up their cross – or in this case the casual enquirers who were Greeks…. this is not merely a half hearted choice which allows you to keep to your old way of life.
By using his allusion of the seed that has to separate itself from its parent plant – in effect to die to its old self before it can set off its new life, he confronts them with an uncompromising alternative. Soren Kierkegaard would probably identify it as the key feature of existentialism – the leap of faith.
………..the leap that no one can do for you.
I guess that Jesus’ message would be treated with caution by modern society and even by much of the corporate Church.
Modern society is based on the concept of success and the achievement of status through the accumulation of wealth and possessions. To set these aside is to reject what is commonly accepted as the only sensible way to live. Even in the corporate Church the notion of individual response without someone to organise it on our behalf is just not how we operate.
While this no doubt gives us the assurance we are not acting alone, there is a conservatism, and frequently an inertia, particularly when there is an assumption that we require the Church to act as broker before we can respond to how our conscience appears to lead.
Robert Funk sees typical religion as unfortunately something brokered by a whole raft of people on our behalf. The Archbishop or Church president selects and ordains the senior leaders, the senior church folk (often Bishops) ordain the clergy – and the clergy act as an intermediary between the congregation and the divine. And just in case we are expecting action on the issues that concern us, there is usually a ponderous committee structure to navigate. While we have clearly become more democratic in our processes, we should be honest enough to see the end result is that the Church no longer typically gives clear lead on issues of conscience.
In the Second World War for example, in Germany it was only the individuals acting alone who could bring themselves to stand against Hitler. Those individuals were not waiting for their actions to be brokered for them. Less than 10% of the Lutheran Church clergy spoke out and the Roman Catholic Church is continuing to defend itself on the charge that if anything they supported the Nazis. On the world scene, the corporate Church was also initially reluctant to speak against slavery, more recently painfully slow to speak up for women’s rights, and continues to say little about the arms trade. The mainline Church has lagged well behind the community in terms of women’s rights and the biggest Churches still appear reluctant to see women in significant leadership roles. Peace makers may be blessed in the sermon on the Mount, but in reality they have not always been visible as part of Church leadership in some of the nastier conflicts. An army chaplain, blessing the mission to drop an atomic bomb on a Japanese city may not represent one of the Church’s finer moments. In this country, despite the record growing gap between the rich and the poor, the Church response has been reactive rather than proactive and if anything muted and restrained.
Individually however we do see within our Churches a small number of determined brave individuals anxious to move forward even without official backing, prepared to follow where their conscience leads. Since we should never forget that in the last analysis the Church is us, we can and should be inspired that we have amongst us those unafraid to question government policy, those prepared to speak up for refugees and minorities, those unafraid to work with the gangs, the addicts and the homeless. We continue to be inspired by those prepared to volunteer in disaster zones, those who insist on supporting Christian World service and those of our Church folk prepared to go into War zones as aid workers.
When we look at the way Jesus interacted with those he met he continually pushed them to take personal responsibility.
Notice for example – he never told those healed that God had done it for them – or that he had interceded on their behalf. Rather instead he acknowledged their personal faith, or actions in seeking his help. It was as if he represented a non brokered faith … a faith in which the shouldering of a personal cross is the test of an individual response.
The seed analogy is vivid and helpful. A seed still attached to the parent plant can only whither and decay. The seed freed to germinate and take root can give rise to new life. Certainly the parent plant – in our case even the parent Church has an essential part of our life cycle. Yet even there the parent Church should be continually allowing and even encouraging the seed to break free to give rise to genuine new life.
Jesus talks of the confrontation as one he in particular must face for himself. He sees the paradox of finding life through death, release through suffering, in effect the dawn after the night. Some of the terminology he uses strongly suggests his premonition of the dark despair he is understood to have faced in the garden of Gethsemane. As always with John it is hard to disentangle the theology from the factual record.
Some of the allusions are easy to grasp. When Jesus talks of he (and she?!) who loves his (or her?!) life will lose it Jesus is not of course talking of a sense of the worth of life – but rather the attractions of a shallow pursuit of that which comes easy… yet there is still mystery. The notion of hating your life to win eternal life is thought-provoking paradox and there is of course the historical fact that by the death of the martyrs the Church itself grew. Yet in what sense the life continues is much harder to put into words. Modern cosmology has in effect put paid to notions of heaven being up there and hell down there as places, and the certainty with which some describe the hereafter (particularly at funerals) is hard to justify since many of the descriptions are contradictory and mutually exclusive.
What we can however be sure of is that a sense of what Jesus stood for has continued to have a lasting significance and regardless of the manner of his execution his message and the Spirit of what he stood for lives on.
By contrast perhaps we might finish with an historical anecdote.
There are several versions of the story about the King Xerxes about to invade Greece. One version says that before they crossed the Hellespont River he had his mighty Persian army drawn up so that he might review them. He smiled in great satisfaction at their magnificence – then his officers noticed suddenly he had tears in his eyes. “What troubles you?” they asked.
“I was just thinking that in one hundred years not a single one of these fine soldiers will be alive. Nothing will remain”.
I guess he was right. Yet with Jesus the essence of Christianity was not finished when he was lifted up on his cross. Whether or not we can find meaning in his message with our own seed is the chapter still to be written.

  • Feel free to use as much of this material as you choose for your own purposes (but not for profit).To avoid subsequent copyright problems some acknowledgment would be appreciated.  Although these sermons appear to be visited regularly, because the purpose of this site is to encourage thought, it would be helpful to others if you were to leave comments, suggestions of alternative illustrations, or corrections.
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